The beginning: 2014-2015
In 2014, the world of virtual reality got off to a strong start when Kickstarter backed VR firm Oculus was purchased by Facebook for a cool 2 Billion. There couldn’t have been a better benchmark for the state of the industry – with money being spent that has that many zeros in it, it was obvious that VR was here to stay.
The following year, Samsung gave away their Oculus powered headsets to buyers of the latest Galaxy devices – bringing the technology right to the homes (and heads) of millions of potential VR app customers.
Right after CES 2015, Microsoft took the industry by surprise with Hololens, the first foray of the technology from strictly VR into AR. With Hololens, images were not just projected in front of you like with VR goggles, but became a hybrid of images, video and your personal environment. For the first time, you could reach out and grab a virtual can of beer, pick it up, and take a virtual sip.
The maturity years: 2016-2017
Google quickly followed suit giving Andoid users something fun to play with when they accounced the “Daydream” headset once again tapping Oculus for some of the technology and applications. By now it was clear that VR was “here to stay” and we’d soon all be wearing our VR goggles as our primary source of content consumption. VR companies were popping up all over the place; your local mall probably got itself a VR enabled escape room or fun VR shooting kiosk.
These cheap (sub $40) primarily plastic headsets were perfect: nothing to program, low maintenance and with a price low enough that losses could be handled. Sadly, VR headsets like the Samsung Gear VR also need a phone installed, and that is where the problems begin. When you hand out $1200 PR gimmicks to your passengers, you need to be sure that you’ll get them back, which is probably why the trials were limited to first class passengers (not because those passengers would never ever steal, but their cabin is better staffed, allowing enough time to collect and inventory the devices). Despite all the hoopla around projects like this, most of them lasted rarely beyond 30 days. Which is of course more than enough to get the (PR) word out, making your airline look sleek, modern and ready for the next trend to come along.
Around this time, the first dedicated aviation themed AR/VR head mounted technology companies started tapping airlines trying to sell them on the idea. Head cheerleader here is US/French firm Skylights. The Skylights Allosky product is a custom Android powered head mounted display, pre-loaded with content. The hardware and software developed by Skylights is incredible. The goggles tick almost every box of requirements for a successful IFE product. Every box except for customer acceptability.
The Skylights product is flying on a couple carriers, including a competitive trial on Alaska Airlines. It is also being trialed on the ground in lounges. Evidence of broad customer adoption or demand remains scant.
Make or break: 2018 – 2019
2018 was a make or break years for the AR/VR market, and in most cases it appears to have been “break.” Nothing significant happened in the past 24 months that could help make the technology reach high levels of customer adaptation. Unlike what many of the early industry experts proclaimed, we are not all watching our content on VR.
VR has not taken over in the corporate applications world. We don’t have planeloads of passengers using head mounted displays. The end of 2018 was mostly full of bad news from headset makers – Osterhout Design Group (who exhibited specifically for the aviation industry at the 2016 APEX Expo in Portland) closed up shop. Most recently, Meta, maker of a very well received hybrid product was foreclosed on by their own bank and sold off to an unknown buyer.
The few airborne trials that took place with AR or VR tech all stayed within the trial phase, often lasting just 5-10 days. Others were shown off, and were simply abandoned once the PR buzz had blown over. Small Planet Airlines was one of the few airborne implementations, partnering with Inflight VR. With the airline’s bankruptcy that deployment ended. Joon was also an airline partner with Allosky. As Joon wraps up operations it is unlikely that the VR experiment will make the transition back to the full Air France brand.
Does this mean the technology is gone for good? Certainly not – there are absolutely some niche areas where AR or VR will find a very successful implementation, most likely in collaborative design of aviation systems, or as an IFE product for ultra-premium cabins where installing $3000 OLED equipped glasses connected to live satellite TV won’t be an issue.
But when VR company executives describe the market as “niche opportunities” it is hard to be too bullish.
The many VR challenges ahead
Studios are not lining up to produce immersive content, so most content used trial programs is standard stuff re-rendered for dual ocular viewing. With this, companies like Skylights are able to offer early window release or other high demand titles. Most titles are either 2D, 3D (rare) or ( very rare) 360 making use of sensors in the head display to “look around”.
Other major hurdles exist;
- Battery life is good, but still not great. Without something that will keep me entertained for the entire flight, I’m just not interested.
- There are still risks with missing announcements. Very few developers have managed to develop a PR intercept with the ability to route announcements into the headset audio.
- Cleanliness... One can only imaging the sweaty smelly mess of a headset just worn by someone on an 18 hour flight. Now picture yourself as a passenger taking that same plane (and headset) as it flies back. Flight attendants will be busy cleaning and disinfecting the googles, and generally making sure all the sweat has been drained.
- Theft: Passengers love freebies. They’ll help themselves to your towels and salt shakers, and some would have no scruples helping themselves to a couple of your new video goggles.
- Technical issues: Plenty of this can be handed in a lounge or through an intro video, but when passengers do run into questions, only an aircraft with connectivity would be able to provide technical service.
Have there been some success stories? Sure, there are definitely a few companies that made a bit of money selling products to random airlines, but nobody in the industry got rich, and nobody has reached any kind of critical mass. As AR and VR slow down in the consumer market, the same will happen in the IFE market. Chances are, very few of the current trials or small scale pilots will ever make it past a couple of hundred units – hardly enough to make a dent in the market or change the industry.